Yes, Spell-offs. Not as in, “let’s have a spelling bee,” but as in “the spellings that throw people off” – and yes, the latter is my own definition. But what better describes the mistakes that so often throw people off? As a teacher of English, and as a writer and editor, I see common problems pop up again and again in people’s written communication. I’ve put together the following list to help you sort out problems you might share with others. It’s all about choices between two or more spellings, and understanding what those spellings represent. Remember to pay special attention to which version of the word you’re using; learning the definitions of each spelling goes a long way in guarding against these mistakes.
NOTE: Apostrophes are NEVER, EVER used to create plurals of words. They are strictly for denoting possession (Sarah’s shoes) or contraction (That’s the point.).
If there are any other words you struggle with, please add in a comment below, with either a mnemonic of how to remember something easier, or a question that I’ll try to answer.
- Affect and Effect: “Affect” is a verb meaning “to influence” (She was affected by the film.). “Effect” refers to a result (noun) (The effect on the carpet is apparent.). REMEMBER: Try what I call the “replacement principle”: If you can replace another word which you know to be the same part of speech as the one in question, then it is the correct form: E.g.: “The stain on the carpet is apparent.” (Stain is a noun, so effect would be used.) “She was moved by the film.” (Moved is a verb, so affect would be correct.)
- A lot: A lot is two words. Every time. “There’s a lot of space between ‘a’ and ‘lot’.” REMEMBER: You would never write “abedroom”, “abunch” or “acat”.
- All ready and Already: “All ready” means “prepared” (The cookie dough was all ready to make cookies the following morning.). “Already” is an adverb meaning “prior to a specified or implied time” (I can’t believe you already ate the cookie dough!).
- All right and Alright: These two forms are controversial: Some grammar nerds will swear that “alright” is never all right. But the two forms have emerged with distinct definitions, and I’ll give a sentence example where the choice makes all the difference in understanding the sentence correctly: “The figures are all right” means that the figures are all accurate. But when you write “The figures are alright,” it means that the figures are acceptable, or satisfactory (they may also be accurate, but that is not the emphasis of this sentence and therefore a moot point). Language is constantly expanding, and though “alright” is considered wrong by many linguists and grammarians, it is gaining foothold with the nuance of difference in definition to its more formidable partner.
- All together and Altogether: “All together”means “collectively”, and can be separated in a sentence (Let’s sing the song all together at the count of three. We all sang the song together.). “Altogether” means “entirely” (We were altogether too tired to go dancing this evening.). If you’re uncertain which one to use, replace the word in your sentence with the definition word given here; the one that makes sense is the one you want to use.
- Altar and Alter: “Altar” is a noun meaning “a special table in religious ceremonies” (The wedding was performed at the altar.), while “Alter” is a verb meaning “to change, to make something or someone different” (Jane had to have her wedding dress altered before she could wear it.).
- Assure, Insure and Ensure: “Assure” is a verb meaning “to make a promise / commitment, or inform with certainty” (The politician assured his voters that he wouldn’t raise their taxes; he lied.). Insure is a verb meaning “to take out insurance for something” (I’m glad I insured my car; a tree was blown down on it in the storm.). Ensure is verb meaning “to make certain that something happens or is done” (I want to ensure that I’ve packed everything – I’ll check one more time.). REMEMBER: Insure is insurance; Ensure is making sure the “end” result happens. NOTE: “Sure” is closely related to ensure; the sentence structure would be slightly different: I want to make sure I’ve packed everything…
- Breath and Breathe: “Breath” is the noun meaning “the inhalation and exhaling of air” (She took a deep breath before diving.), while “Breathe” is the verb meaning “to inhale and exhale, or to impart as if by breathing” (My breath is short; I need to breathe in my asthma medication. The new coat of paint breathed life into the old house.).
- Complement and Compliment:“Complement” is a verb meaning “to combine well with something, often something that has different qualities” (The colour of her dress complemented her eyes.). “Compliment” is a verb meaning “to say something nice to or about someone”(I complimented her on her good choice of colours.). REMEMBER: Compl-E-ment makes something more Elegant; Compl-I-ment means that I say something nice.
- Counsel and Council: “Counsel” is a verb meaning “to give someone advice about what to do in a particular situation” or a noun referring to such a person (I counselled my friend to wait.). “Council” is a noun meaning “an official group of people who have been chosen to make decisions or provide advice.” (The council met to discuss the items from their last meeting.)
- Dryer and Drier: “Dryer” (noun) is a machine that dries things like clothes or hair. (As soon as the dryer is finished I can switch loads of laundry.) “Drier” is the comparative form of the adjective “dry” (dry, drier, driest/dryest). (It’s drier now – shall we go for a walk?)
- Emigrate and Immigrate: “Emigrate” is a verb meaning “to Exit your country in order to live in another country” (I emigrated from America to live in Scotland.), while Immigrate is just the opposite – a verb meaning “to come Into a country because you want to live there” (He immigrated to France from England, and now lives in Paris.).
- Except and Accept: “Except” means “to exclude” (verb) (Too many cooks spoil the broth – present company excepted, of course.); or “with the exception of, but” (preposition) (Everyone except Edward went to the beach.); or “with the exception that” (conjunction) (You look like my brother, except you have shorter hair.). “Accept” means to receive an offer, an idea, a person’s suggestion, etc. (I accepted his advice / invitation / proposal.).
- Here and Hear: “Here” refers to place. “Hear” refers to the act of listening (ears) (Even from here, behind a closed door on the fifth floor, I can hear the music.).
- Its and It’s: “Its” is a possessive pronoun. (The cat licks its fur to clean itself.) “It’s” is a contraction of it and is, or it and has. (It’s going to be a beautiful day. It’s been a long time since I saw him.) REMEMBER: You would never write “hi’s shirt” or “he’r jeans”, so it should NEVER be “it’s shirt”, but rather “its shirt”. If you’re not sure which one to use, use the replacement principle: Try using “it is” or “it has” in the sentence, and if it makes sense it’s “it’s”; if not, it is “its”. And keep the note about apostrophes above in mind!
- Lead and Led: “Lead” is both verb and noun: (V): “to guide or conduct in a certain course” (He leads the choir on Thursday evenings.); (N): “A heavy, pliable, inelastic metal element” (The lead pencil left a mark on the wooden table.). “Led” is the simple past tense and past participle (always comes with have or has) of the verb lead. (Clifton led the choir on Thursdays until his wife had a baby. Since then, James has led the choir.)
- Lose and Loose: “Lose” is a verb. “Loose” is an adjective. (You’ll lose your keys if you try to hold up your loose trousers.)
- Moot and Mute: “Moot” is an adjective meaning “no longer important because a particular situation has changed or no longer exists” (Now that the train has left the station without us, it’s a moot point as to whether or not we’ll arrive on time.). “Mute” is a verb meaning “to make something less strong or extreme” or a noun meaning “not willing (or able) to speak” (Could you please mute the volume – I’m on the phone and I can’t hear the other person speaking. The deaf man was also mute.)
- Past and Passed: “Past” is an adverb or proposition meaning “going near someone or something while you are on your way to another place” or “after a particular time” (I drove past his house on my way to work. We used to fight as kids, but that’s all in the past; we’re friends now.). “Passed” is the simple past tense and past participle (always with either have or has) of the verb “pass” (I passed his house on my way to work. I have passed the exams, and now I can go on holidays.)
- Principal and Principle: “Principal” is an adjective meaning “primary; most important,” (The principal cause of failure was poor management.); a noun meaning “money initially invested,” (A portion of your mortgage payment goes to reduce the principal); or “head administrator of a school” (The principal of our school is retiring next year.) “Principle” is a noun meaning “a fundamental assumption or moral rule” (Principles are the basis of sound reason. She would not work on Sunday because of her personal principles.) REMEMBER: The principal alphabetic principle places A before E.
- Rain, Reign, Rein: “Rain” is a noun referring to atmospheric moisture that falls (It’s raining.); Reign is both noun and verb, meaning “the exercise of sovereign power” or “to rule as a monarch” (Queen Elizabeth has reigned for sixty years. Her reign has been a long and peaceful one.). “Rein” is a noun referring to the strap or rope attached to the bridle bit of an animal, and also a verb referring to the action of using the reins to stop or direct the action of said animal. (He reined the horse to a stop with a tight grip on the reins.)
- Shudder and Shutter: “Shudder” is a noun, “shivering tremor”, or verb, “to shake nervously” as from fear (There was a shudder in the ground as the nearby building was detonated. She shuddered at the thought.). “Shutter” is a noun, “protective panels placed over windows to block out the light” or verb referring to those panels. (I pulled the shutters closed to take a nap. Shutter the windows – a storm is coming.)
- Then and Than: “Then” is used to show the order of events. (We went to lunch, then to the library.) “Than” is used to show comparison. (In the northern hemisphere, the summer is warmer than the winter.)
- There, Their and They’re: “There” refers to a place or idea. “Their” is the possessive of “they.” “They’re” is a contraction of “they” and “are.” (There are seven apartments in our building; their doors all open onto the same entrance hall, and we all get along well; they’re friendly and helpful.)
- Too, To and Two: “Too” means in addition / as well. “To” is a preposition that indicates motion in the direction of a place or thing. “Two” is the written version of the number 2. (I’m going to the cinema; Jim is coming too as I was able to buy two tickets.)
- Weather and Whether: “Weather” is a noun to do with sunshine, wind, etc. (The weather is forecasted to become drier this week.). “Whether” is a conjunction expressing a doubt or a choice between alternatives (I haven’t decided whether I should go or not.).
- Your and You’re: “Your” is a possessive preposition. “You’re” is a contraction of “you” and “are”: (You’re going to remember to bring your coat, aren’t you? It’s cold outside.)
Feel free to use this, but please give credit where credit is due for the work involved. Text credit: Stephanie Huesler, © May 2013